Much has been said and written about the flavour of single malt whiskies. The intensity of flavour of each whisky is dependent on many factors that range from the water used, to the size and shape of the pot stills, to how the barley is dried, to the length of time the whisky has matured in a cask or different casks. As single malt Scotch whisky grows in popularity, it is reaching out to new market audiences with unique finishing to enhance the taste and clever prose to market the products.
Back in 1979, a group of sensory analysts devised a language of whisky at the Pentlands Scotch Whisky Research Institute that they developed into a tasting wheel diagram. Since that time, numerous iterations of the wheel (and other similar schematics) have emerged. With each iteration whisky writers began using certain words to characterize different tastes.
For instance, whiskies were categorized as “smoky”, “rich”, “light” and “delicate” and within these categories numerous descriptors have been used, such as woody, herbal, buttery, nutty, toffy, leather, cereal, citrusy, peppery, iodine, spicy and so on. Sensory differentiation was intended to make sense of the complex range of smell and taste, using science to analyze the data and marketing to help promote the brands. Tasting notes or descriptors are like short outbursts of undulating graphic descriptions:
Foreplay: Malt and toffee, a faint pungency + a whiff of the Highlands
Climax: A sherried sweetness with a wee touch of sulphur with mild peaty notes
Post Climax: Long lingering tongue tingling tannins that go on forever.
The most distinctive aroma taste in the single malt range is from the peat. “Peaty” may be “medicinal’, “smoky” or sometimes both, with hints of iodine, ash tray or old boot. The peat on Islay, which is decomposed forests, has its own distinctive taste and smell – Ardbeg, Lagavulin, Laphroiag, with slightly less medicinal and smoky notes of other Islay whiskies like Bowmore, Bunnahadhain and Bruichaddich.
In the language of tasters, Ardbeg – Uigeadail, has been described as “…a beguiling mix of warm Christmas cake and walnut oil fused with fresh ocean spice…followed by a smoky coal fire and a deep scent of well-oiled leather.”
Comparatively, the peat on the Isles of Orkney, Skye and Mull, where the malt can be equally smoky, has a heathery base and is less medicinal in taste, offering a more salty and bitter character. An example is Highland Park 12 year from the Orkneys that has a “hint of heathery smoke and charcoal…some grassy notes, hay, mingling nicely with the soft smoky touches”. Or the Ledaig 10 year old from the Tobermory Distillery on Mull which has been described as “very tarry and ash with lots of tobacco notes up front…a lot of wet wool…anchovies in salt…intense sooty notes”. Makes one wonder why someone would drink it, but for those who had a chance to try it at a recent tasting discovered that it was delightful, regardless of the prose.
Single malts from the Highlands and Speyside regions, on the other hand, are more light and delicate. “Vanilla” is often noted in whiskies matured in American oak bourbon casks and “honey” is found in European oak sherry casks. However, there is a new generation of experimenters, like Glenfiddich’s new IPA Experiment that aged its malt for three months in reused IPA casks. Leaving it with “lots of fruit, some cinnamon, grassy and a bit hoppy”. Or, Glenfiddich’s Winter Storm Ice Wine Casks 21 year old, which has been aged in Canadian ice wine barrels from Peller Estates. This whisky has been described as “quite tangy …followed by something biscuity, most reminiscent of cookie dough, and a hint of desiccated coconut.”
Winter Storm, at $300 plus a bottle, not only entices the collector with hints of curiosity as to what one might experience with an ice wine finish but for the avid collector it adds fresh and spicy marketing with its unique bottle and box presentation.
Similarly, Highland Park Ice (17 year) and Fire (15 year) are limited editions with its Ice Edition aged in ex-bourbon casks with “some pencil shavings, peanuts and hints of fruit blossoms”. The Fire Edition was matured in refill Port casks with “vegetal notes up front, with some cooked grains and damp ferns”. The box and bottle presentation are part of the reason that these two are in the $350 – $400 plus range.
Have we seen the end of experimentation and new ways to describe and market the whisky flavour? I think not. If anything, this is only the beginning.